Map Quest

By Lawrence Biemiller

Washington -- Iris Miller is an architect turned accidental historian, a professor and city planner whose workaday need to know what belonged where in Washington grew into a fascination with maps of the city. That fascination, in turn, led her to assemble an unusual cartographic history, Washington in Maps: 1606-2000, that has made her a go-to person for all kinds of questions about the layout of the capital. Wondering what inspired the city's 18th-century planners? Curious about the history of a square or traffic circle? Hoping to improve signage for today's tourists? Ms. Miller, who is director of landscape studies at Catholic University of America, is the person to ask.

Washington in Maps (Rizzoli) looks at first like a scholarly overview of mapmaking history that swelled to become a coffee-table volume. Many of its 104 maps and perspective drawings are works of art, from the earliest engravings to a 1991 "figure-ground plan" that shows nothing but the black footprints of buildings on a white background, neatly abstracting the metropolis. Especially compelling is a set of 1985 perspective drawings by the architect and philosopher Leon Krier for "the Completion of Washington," which Mr. Krier would achieve by creating grand new vistas along major thoroughfares and by expanding the Tidal Basin to flood much of the Mall. However overreaching his ideas, they are wonderfully illustrated.

But the book is, just as importantly, a cultural and social history of visions for a new nation's capital -- and of the ways in which those visions succeeded and failed. Essays by Ms. Miller and others accompany the maps, putting each in a historical context and pointing out notable features. In an opening essay, Ms. Miller reaches back to French cities, chateaux, and hunting forests of the 1700s to find sources of inspiration for Pierre Charles L'Enfant's famous 1791 plan showing a new seat of government near "George Town" on the "Potowmac River." She includes maps showing the Mall in its Romantic 19th-century incarnation, full of trees and winding paths, as well as later maps showing turn-of-the-century Beaux-Arts schemes with the now-familiar reflecting pools and ruler-straight vistas.

Other maps hint at what life in Washington must have been like at various times. A splendid 1861 map of then-extant buildings makes it clear that most of L'Enfant's plan had yet to be realized -- houses reached only about six blocks north of the White House, while beyond the city's core whole stretches of blocks stood empty. Statistical maps from the 1870s and '80s show the reach of such amenities as water mains, fireplugs, shade trees, and gas streetlights. A 1923 perspective drawing finally shows a fully-realized capital, albeit one of mostly two-, three-, and four-story buildings that Lincoln would probably have recognized.

Another statistical map, from 1926, is among the most striking in the book because it distinguishes "white" and "colored" public schools. Ms. Miller and Charlene Drew Jarvis, a former chairman of the City Council and also president of Southeastern University here, write in an accompanying essay that the colored schools "had some of the most highly educated principals, teachers, and staff in the entire system" because the schools offered good jobs at a time when employment opportunities for black college graduates were limited.

Ms. Miller maintains a landscape-architecture practice of her own, in addition to serving on several planning-related boards. She says her interest in maps was purely a practical one until the early 1980s. By then she had moved to Washington -- she grew up in Pittsburgh -- and had given up a career as a schoolteacher to earn an architecture degree from Catholic. She was teaching in the university's architecture school at the same time that she was organizing exhibits about the city and setting up continuing-education exercises in which architects gathered to brainstorm about local planning problems. Those required Ms. Miller to go off in search of old Washington maps.

"I found you had to go all over to get maps," she says. "They're scattered around the city, and there's no book that says where they all are." The Library of Congress's geography-and-map division has the original L'Enfant plan, and it has many other Washington maps as well. But other important documents, it turned out, were housed at the National Archives, the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, and the National Capital Planning Commission, as well as in private collections of Washingtoniana. Ms. Miller soon realized, to her dismay, that no index identified which maps could be had from which collections.

More of the continuing-education exercises followed, requiring more maps. Ms. Miller went to France to do research on L'Enfant and on how recent designs for Paris and other cities had inspired the plan he created for Washington. She began taking pictures of rare maps for exhibitions she organized. She relied on maps when she served as an expert witness in a high-profile trial over a developer's plan to close several blocks of one of L'Enfant's streets. Eventually friends suggested she assemble a book that would describe significant Washington maps and where to locate them.

"I knew where maybe 40 or 50 maps existed, but the others were very hard to find," she says. And once she found them, she had to understand them, she says, adding: "I did an awful lot of research on things I did not know." In Thomas Jefferson's papers, for instance, she located a 1790 sketch that suggests rotating what had been envisioned as a square parcel of land so that the parcel would instead be diamond-shaped -- allowing it to incorporate some choice property and a maximum of river frontage.

A close comparison of L'Enfant's plan with a version prepared soon afterward by his successor, an American surveyor named Andrew Ellicott, showed that Ellicott "failed to understand precious nuances" of L'Enfant's plan, Ms. Miller says. Along with other changes, Ellicott tampered with L'Enfant's street grid and straightened out some avenues that L'Enfant had carefully positioned "for reciprocity of views" among squares and circles. As she continued her research, she became an aficionado of long-forgotten efforts, like the Senate Park Commission plans that led to the creation of the winding, forested Rock Creek Parkway in the 1930s. She grew enamored of the city's 301 "public reservations," which include not just its many squares and circles but also the ubiquitous triangular parks created by the angled avenues.

Ms. Miller has become a big fan of L'Enfant's, and she goes out of her way to note in the book that in October 1791 he purchased a lot on 17th Street, N.W., between H and I Streets. A satellite image of the city from 2000 shows L'Enfant's plan largely intact -- its avenues and squares visible from space -- though in places amended: Landfill has narrowed the rivers, and the hole excavated for a new convention center takes up eight full blocks, obliterating a stretch of 8th Street, N.W.

"I'm opposed to closing streets in the city, especially L'Enfant streets," Ms. Miller says firmly. Indeed, she still regrets the loss of L'Enfant's Washington Canal, which ran east along what is now Constitution Avenue, jogged across the Mall in front of the Capitol, and then headed south to the Anacostia River. It was closed in 1870, the victim of years of complaints that it had become a sewage-filled health hazard. Even so, she says, "We lost a very important amenity in this city."

Another regret is that she had to leave many good maps out of the book, even after talking the publishers up from 80 maps to 104. One series of statistical maps from the early 1880s alone includes a total of 72 maps -- "I had to decide what to use," she says, turning to a map with streets color-coded according to what type of pavement they have. Many downtown streets are gray, denoting granite block, and others are depicted as macadamized or asphalt-covered. But the map shows long stretches of Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island Avenues paved in wood, along with parts of P, 16th, and 19th Streets, N.W. "Who would have known," Ms. Miller says, a note of wonder in her voice, "that there were wooden streets?"

Copyright © 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published February 20, 2004.